Amidst the chaos and carnage of some batting experimentation and a young Sri Lankan spinner on fire, it were the cool heads of former captain MS Dhoni and pace bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar that saw India home by three wickets in a tense second ODI in Kandy.
Indian captain Virat Kohli said at the toss that despite an unchanged line-up his side would test themselves with new roles and some experimentation throughout the game, perhaps taking into account Sri Lanka’s meek resistance all tour. At 131/7 chasing 231 it seemed the jumbled batting order had scrambled the minds and tangled the feet of India’s much vaunted middle order.
Enter Dhoni and Bhuvneshwar. The experienced pairing batted with a serenity that was missing from the highly touted middle order as they danced to the tune of Akila Dananjaya’s bag of wonderful tricks, particularly susceptible to his masterful use of the googly. The young Sri Lankan leg-spinner made India’s batsmen, highly regarded as players of spin that they are, look foolish in a manner reminiscent of Ajantha Mendis back in 2008.
However, Dananjaya’s magic wasn’t enough to defend the hosts' second below-par total in as many games as Dhoni and Bhuvneshwar first steadied the ship, before settling in to tick the strike over and eventually find the boundary with more regularity as the innings progressed.
There is little doubt Dhoni is no longer the dominant force he once was, and opponents no longer fear the former skipper’s rope clearing prowess. While Dhoni’s power hitting may be on the wane, he is still lightning between the wickets and his sharp cricket brain is as calculating as ever. Through wisdom and experience Dhoni has learnt to never panic, no matter the situation, and after 298 ODIs he has seen it all. It is also his strong sense of self belief that ensures he is always in the fight, and makes his batting partner believe as well.
The Dhoni of old would have got himself settled, before targeting a specific bowler or two late in the game and punishing them. The older, wiser and perhaps less destructive Dhoni in Kandy kept his team in the game by running hard, calculating risk, picking gaps and trusting his partner at the other end. His 45 runs off 68 balls contained just the one boundary, but at no stage did he look hurried or panicked at the crease.
Bhuvneshwar turned out to be the perfect foil and ally for Dhoni and proved he was a more than capable partner in this run chase. The unflappable and unassuming demeanour so often seen when he is bowling in pressure situations carried through into his batting, as he notched his maiden ODI half-century and outscored his former captain in their 100-run stand.
When Bhuvneshwar joined Dhoni at the crease, India were reeling from the loss of KL Rahul, Kedar Jadhav, Kohli and Hardik Pandya. They had gone from 109/1 to 131/7 in the blink of an eye but the canny seamer showed he can be just as smart with bat in hand as he is with the ball. Bhuvneshwar is no mug with the bat, as three Test fifties and an average of 21.50 shows, but his returns with the willow in 50-overs cricket have been far less fruitful, averaging just 11.86.
Still, he showed admirable application and maturity to overcome some nervy moments and brilliant bowling from Sri Lanka to eventually become the senior partner and do the bulk of the scoring in a match winning partnership. His slog swept six off left-arm spinner Milinda Siriwardana eased the pressure at a crucial stage of the match and was a highlight of his innings.
As the chase went on neither man’s expression gave away the pressure of the situation, Dhoni’s never does. Thanks to a modest required run rate, although it did begin to climb, the pair were able to negotiate tricky periods together, with Dhoni talking the fast bowler through being targeted by the short ball, and accumulate runs when scoring opportunities presented themselves.
Once settled, Bhuvneshwar’s confidence grew and his game started to expand beyond staunch resistance and defiant defence while Dhoni ticked along in typically unhurried Dhoni fashion. The pair’s biggest test was always going to be when Sri Lankan skipper Upul Tharanga recalled his trump card Dananjaya back into the attack, but like the rest of their time at the crease his spell was negotiated with minimal risk and a calmness and maturity that belied the situation — the dominating traits in India’s match winning partnership and eventual victory.